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Wild Rumpus Sports

Tough or Stupid

At its most basic, training is stressing the body in a specific way to make the body adapt and become stronger. Stressing the body is often not a pleasant experience. Maximal interval sessions are painful by nature, over distance workouts are intended to deplete the body beyond what is normal, and weather and outside forces always have the potential to make workouts more difficult.

I have been training between 700-1000 hours annually for the last 18 years. The consistency of my training relies on my willingness to get the work done despite fatigue, minor injury, and inhospitable weather. Pushing through minor obstacles is proof of dedication and toughness. However there is a line between tough and stupid that I have always had a tendency to cross. This line could also be described as a barrier of diminishing or even negative returns. Even when my body or the climate has been telling me not to continuee, it has generally been mentally easier for me to push through and finish my task. The consequences often lead to injury or long term fatigue. The question of “tough or stupid” often comes down to the individual. What one athlete views as tolerable and worthwhile may seem absurd and foolish to another.

What made me think of this was the Mt Moosilaukee running timetial that I competed in yesterday. About five minutes into the race I was stung on the ankle by a yellow jacket. In general I am not severely allergic to stings but I do react with swelling and nausea. The sting hurt but I was so focused on the task at hand that I just kept running. I should have stopped. At the top of the mountain I had run three minutes slower than expected, my ankle was stiff and swollen and I was disoriented. I am sure that I gained absolutely nothing from the effort and I risked severe consequences by ignoring the allergic reaction. I was stupid and lucky that everything turned out ok

Yesterday made me think of other times that I have ignored pain while racing. My focus is so intense during an event that I seem to be able to block out just about anything. At the 2007 Sapporo World Championships I was skiing in a lead pack of twenty skiers in the 30k skiathlon. With 4k to go, on the fastest downhill, Johann Olsson fell right in front of me and I had to bail at roughly 40 mph. I took the entire impact of the fall on my right shoulder. I skidded to a stop and bounced back to my feet. I was able to catch back up to the pack but was too blown from the effort to put up any fight in the final kilometer. I ended up 19th at the line where I suddenly felt excruciating pain in my right shoulder. I could not lift my arm and any movement hurt. That night I was treated by our physical therapist. He tested my arm by having me perform various strength and range of movement exercises. Every task was intensely painful but I also had full functional use of my arm. I was cleared to race the 50k classic a few days later. My shoulder still hurt like a hell when I started the marathon but I was able to pole with reasonable effectiveness. Turning to the side to grab feeds made me want to cry out in pain though. I had my best 50k performance of my career taking 12th place. Two months later while I was training in Bend another physical therapist was skiing behind me and noticed that my scapula was moving in an odd pattern while I poled. He scheduled an MRI for me and it turned out that I had fractured the ball of my humerous in the crash. The doctor said he had never seen a break in a shoulder without any soft tissue damage before but that somehow I had managed to do just that. That was why I had retained motor function of my shoulder despite massive pain. The strange movement in my shoulder blade was a subconscious rerouting in my arm swing to avoid pain signals from the break and subsequent tendonitis. It took me 18 months of regular physical therapy exercises to retrain the pathways in my arm to move normally again. My verdict on this episode is 50% tough and 50% stupid. I was able to record my best 50k finish ever but I also gave myself a chronic shoulder injury that I had to work for nearly two years to heal.

Perspective plays a role in determining wether pushing through adversity is worthwhile. Sometimes pushing through negative conditions can traain the mind to ignore poor circumstances. Based on my history I don’t think this is something I need to practice. One year at the annual Lake Placid training camp a sprint time trial was scheduled and several club, high school and college teams came to participate. The weather was miserable with 30 degree temps, pouring rain and unrelenting wind. After the qualifier Everyone was soaked through and freezing. Waiting around for an hour before starting rounds seemed foolish to me and I though that it would be in everyone’s best interest to bail. Pete Vordenberg was running the session though and he was determined to see the race through. I wasn’t going to be the only athlete to stop so I suffered through the competition. I was so cold that my heart rate would not elevate out of what was my normal level 3, but I must have been better off than the other skiers since I won every round including the final. Many of the younger competitors were so cold that they eschewed cooling down and warming up to huddle in the van between rounds. I went back to the Olympic Training Center resenting the work out and completely exhausted. The whole exercise had seemed to be a waste of time to me. That evening I over heard Pete talking about what a success the day had been and how tough the US ski community was. Tough or stupid is sometimes just a matter of perspective.

At the 2011 Oslo World Championships I was in the worst form of my entire season. I had finished in the top 10 three times earlier that year and had taken points in a dozen races already. I was recovering from a nasty cold though, and my racing sensations were going in the opposite direction that I wanted. The only race left was the 50k free which I feared would set me back even further. I still had two world cup weekends left including the Finals in Falun. I felt that there was little chance of a good result in the 50k so I relinquished my start right to rest for the remaining races. The recovery was good for me and I closed out the season with world cup points in all four distance races including a top 20. I finished the World Cup season in 27th and somewhere in the teens on the distance list. It seemed obvious to me that I had made a good decision to skip the 50k. A few years later I learned that the brass at the US Ski Team had been shocked that I gave up the 50k start and considered it a sign of weakness. The viewpoint surprised me as I had always considered that decision to be difficult but intelligent. Should I have been tougher and raced or would that have been stupid?

After 18 years of skiing and training full time I would think that I would be better at making the determination between tough or stupid. Yesterday’s allergic reaction showed me that making those calls will always be difficult for me. Even now as I write this with a swollen leg and a Benadryl hangover, I am asking myself if I should be out training. In my core I know that training would be stupid and counterproductive but there will always be that voice telling me to be tough. I love that voice but I wish he came with an on and off switch.